Anita Hill: 'We've Come A Long Way Since Then' Nearly 25 years after Anita Hill accused her former boss of making lewd advances, America is again dealing with high-profile cases of sexual harassment. Hill tells NPR what's changed and what hasn't.

Anita Hill: 'We've Come A Long Way Since Then'

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It's been submerged beneath the presidential campaign news, but we may be having a national moment about sexual harassment. Roger Ailes lost his job this summer as head a Fox News.


It happened after a former anchor sued over alleged harassment. Numerous other women then made their own allegations, dating back decades. Ailes' departure comes after long-running allegations against Bill Cosby finally captured attention, as did complaints of harassment in colleges.

INSKEEP: Now, the point here is not to assign guilt in any particular case. Ailes, for the record, has denied wrongdoing at Fox. The point is that women are at last gaining more attention when making complaints that were once dismissed. You hear a difference if you go back to 1991, which is when Anita Hill made public claims against a former colleague, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.


ANITA HILL: After approximately three months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next and telling the world about it are the two most difficult things - experiences of my life.

INSKEEP: Clarence Thomas denied wrongdoing, accused his critics of a high-tech lynching and made it to the court. Anita Hill says she was ostracized. She is, today, a professor at Brandeis University, where she joined us to talk about the past quarter-century of sexual harassment claims.

HILL: We've come a long way since then. It is now part of the public conversation. Many workplaces have rules against it. Certainly there have been some very well-known cases that have been brought in court. And in many of those instances, women have prevailed. But even among women who seem very powerful in their jobs and in the public eye, these problems exist, and they don't come forward necessarily.

INSKEEP: What do you mean when you say it's part of the public conversation?

HILL: In 1991, people started talking publicly about it. Women, as well as men, started talking about what they had experienced in the workplace, what they had witnessed in the workplace. And I think it changed the public perception of women who had been brave enough to step up and come forward. And it exposed a lot of the ways of trashing women that are routinely done when women do come forward.

INSKEEP: Both the Bill Cosby story and the Roger Ailes story - and I'm not saying in any way that they're exactly the same - share some of the same elements. You have a workplace situation. You have ambitious people. You have a powerful man accused of taking advantage of far, far, far less powerful women. What do you think those stories have done to change people's consciousness about this?

HILL: I think it makes clear that even though the men are more powerful, that even women who are perceived to have some power have trouble coming forward. But I also think that it makes people aware that how, in these situations where there is extreme hierarchy and you have an individual who is well-regarded on many levels, that it is very difficult for women to come forward because, in many ways, they don't have anyone to report to who can actually do anything about it, who can change the behavior of this powerful person.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by extreme hierarchy? Every company has a boss, but you seem to be talking about a specific kind of company.

HILL: Well, I'm talking about companies where you do have this fairly iconic figure and employees are prohibited from stepping outside of the chain of command to even talk to people who are above them in rank.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about the different kinds of allegations that have surfaced here and in other cases, for that matter. Does that make any difference to you?

HILL: Well, every case has to be judged on its own, but the law gives you some standards. And you can either have the sexual extortion, which is the quid pro quo, or you can have harassment that is - does not require sex, but creates an environment that is hostile and ongoing. So the question isn't whether it's one kind or another, but the question is whether it is severe and pervasive.

INSKEEP: What would you have employers do about this issue that they're not doing?

HILL: Well, one thing I would have the Fox News Network do is to take back the $40 million that reportedly Roger Ailes has received.

INSKEEP: Oh, and we should mention that is what has been reported, anyway, to be a severance payment of sorts as Ailes was shown the door.

HILL: Well, it seems to me that that sends a very bad signal. And, in fact, if the allegations are proven to be true, then certainly not only has he violated the law, but I would also say that he has actually injured the company in a way that would keep him from being entitled to a severance pay.

INSKEEP: Anita Hill, thanks very much.

HILL: Thank you. You know, I would just add that, when we look at this moment in time, one of the things that we need to understand is that whether this, in fact, moves us any further depends on a number of factors. One of the factors is, how do victims relate to the examples of women coming forward? How do they feel they're going to be evaluated or the truthfulness of their allegations? We also need to look at how different women are evaluated. It may be women who are evaluated differently because of their race or religion, status in the workplace. There are a whole lot of things that go into the mix. But one thing that I am very sure of is, if we look at 1991 and think about what happened, even though from the outside observer it seemed that, in fact, I'd lost, I was treated very badly, women continue to come forward. And they came forward in record numbers. And that, I believe, is a good sign.

INSKEEP: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

HILL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Anita Hill is now a professor at Brandeis University. She joined us to talk about sexual harassment.

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